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The Queen’s Gambit: How Mackenzie Dern figured out fighting to become a serious UFC title contender

Mackenzie Dern has never played chess a day in her life, but she’s starting to view her fights and opponents with the kind of foresight that would make Beth Harmon proud.

In the award-winning Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, the lead character played by Anya Taylor-Joy is a chess prodigy who oftentimes plays entire games with a multitude of potential outcomes in her head before she actually sits down to a match.

The ability to predict her opponent’s moves then adapt on the fly with her own strategy helps transform Beth from a promising young talent into a world champion. But like any compelling drama, Beth faces a tremendous amount of adversity along the way and only becomes a champion once she learns how to conquer those demons.

As enthralling as it was to watch Beth orchestrate her moves and better her rivals, The Queen’s Gambit was ultimately still fiction.

But Dern is somehow starting to follow the same script when it comes to her own career.

Even before she debuted in the UFC, Dern was being compared to big-name athletes such as Ronda Rousey with questions of how long it’d be until she became champion, all despite a total of just five professional fights on her resume.

Anyone could tell those were unrealistic expectations to heap on the shoulders of even a once-in-a-life-time prospect, much less a 24-year-old rookie who was still learning on the job after spending most of her life training to become the best grappler on the planet.

While she did manage to win her first two UFC fights, Dern was still plagued by weight-cutting problems in order to compete at 115 pounds and faced unnecessary scrutiny after a panel of journalists somehow ranked her as one of the top strawweights in the promotion despite only a single fight in the actual division. Then came Dern’s pregnancy, which wasn’t a planned event but meant taking at least a year off from MMA, which resulted in Dern suddenly losing 50,000 followers on Instagram and sponsors starting to abandon ship.

“I know that we have a more male-based [sport], and if you can see a hot girl fighting — and [then] all of a sudden she’s pregnant,” Dern told MMA Fighting. “I was already having problems with making weight before, so I guess they just left and [thought], ‘OK, she’s never going to come back to fighting.’

“For me it was: I need to prove everyone wrong.”

UFC fighter Mackenzie Dern works out at the RVCA Training Center in Costa Mesa... Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Rather than worry about her MMA career during that time, Dern stopped all forms of training and focused only on welcoming her daughter Moa to the world. Yet less than four months after giving birth, Dern was already calling the UFC to ask for a fight.

Even her bosses were surprised by that request.

“They’re like, ‘Are you sure? How’s the weight? How are you feeling?’” Dern explained.

“I wanted to be fighting. I came back actually pretty early and they’re like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to wait longer?’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Give me a fight!’”

Dern ultimately suffered her first professional loss in her return after Moa’s birth, dropping a unanimous decision to Amanda Ribas. It wasn’t a completely lopsided fight by any means, and Dern had faced defeats before during her grappling career, but the loss still served as a wake-up call that she needed to start making some changes in her life.

After bouncing back with two submission wins in a row, a disastrous altercation between her husband and her coach led to another change of scenery, which may end up being the most pivotal moment of her career. Following the split with her old gym, Dern began working with Jason Parillo, a famed head coach and boxing aficionado with a long résumé of building champions like Michael Bisping, B.J. Penn, and Cris Cyborg.

While Parillo is best known for his striking acumen, Dern was blown away by his instruction not only when it came to her boxing and kickboxing, but also how he was able to relate it back to her ground game, which has always been the strongest weapon in her arsenal.

“He’s able to put me in the mindset of how I see fighting like I saw jiu-jitsu back in my jiu-jitsu days,” Dern said. “Just kind of putting my game and my style and being confident and opening up opportunities to take it to the ground. I think with my past coaches, I was still blindly in the fight. Just trying to do my best at fighting. Not really how to take [anyone] down, not setting anything up, I was just in a brawl.

“Now I really see better opportunities to take it to the ground and just kind of finding what my style is. I realized, OK, the better we get, the girls’ takedown defense is better, so I have my striking coach, he’s helping me get the respect I need for my striking, and that opens up the takedowns way easier than just trying to run in and get the takedown. I realized what makes me different from the girls; it’s my jiu-jitsu, so let’s stick to that. Less injuries. It’s just going to be hard for girls to catch up to me and I really need to take advantage of that.”

As disheartening as it was to lose outside support during her pregnancy then suffer her first career MMA loss followed by a split with her former coach, Dern looks back at all of it as necessary lessons that put her on the path she’s on now. She’s currently riding an impressive four-fight win streak highlighted by victories over ranked competition in Nina Nunes and Virna Jandiroba that helped propel Dern into the conversation for title contention.

Unlike when she was still just a rookie with raw talent, Dern has now walked through the fire of good and bad performances, learned from both, and come out on the other side.

“I think the adversity is what makes you more mature,” Dern said. “The adversity with my loss, the weight cuts — that’s not the adversity everyone wants to go through but I was young. I’m 28 now so I was 25 and my whole life was jiu-jitsu. The jiu-jitsu world is a totally different world. It’s still fighting but it’s the same thing.

“When I got my black belt, my first year at black belt, everyone expected me to go and win the world championships. It took me like two years and I was winning everything until black belt. It took me like two years until I got into black belt level and maturity and understanding the game and everything. I went through ACL surgeries. I’d get good results like podium — second place, third place — but to really get the win, it took a couple of years. Once I figured that out and got everything, I just kind of took off.”

While building her current win streak, Dern has seen some of the same parallels in her MMA career as she’s starting to figure everything out and find her rhythm inside the cage.

There’s no straight line to becoming champion — if it were that easy, everybody would follow it — but Dern has no problem with the twists and turns she’s taken in order to end up where she’s at now.

“I’m starting to understand what’s working, what doesn’t work,” Dern said. “I’m definitely a more mature fighter. The most [influence], of course, is my daughter.

“Being a mom, now I have someone depending on me. I want to be a good role model and just do the best I can. Not just go by and having fun and partying, that kind of young fighter lifestyle that I was [living] before.”

To take the next step towards a run at a UFC championship, Dern will need to go through Marina Rodriguez in Dern’s first main event at UFC Vegas 39.

Rodriguez has been a strong addition to the strawweight division, amassing a 4-1-2 record including wins over Tecia Torres, Ribas, and Michelle Waterson.

On paper, the fight looks like the classic striker vs. grappler matchup, with Rodriguez constantly showcasing her ever-improving skills on the feet while Dern remains arguably the gold standard of grappling in her division.

But the biggest difference with Dern’s next fight compared to those earlier in her career? Dern isn’t just running headfirst into her opponents while hoping and praying she can bring the action down to the floor. These days, she’s confident enough in her hands to match someone like Rodriguez punch-for-punch. But make no mistake, it’s all done with a purpose.

“I just need to get you on the ground and then I can start to do the submissions and get the fight over with,” Dern said. “I don’t want to just hold you there. But now I have 25 minutes.”

In the game of chess, the queen’s gambit is a popular opening move where a player will sacrifice a pawn to start a match in order to gain a better strategic position over an opponent.

In the series finale for the TV series of the same name, it’s this exact move that Beth Harmon uses in order to pull off the upset that allows her to defeat a Russian legend in a final match to become champion.

Now, Dern couldn’t tell you how many spaces a pawn can move much less pick out the queen on the board, but lately she’s been building towards the same kind of maneuvers in the cage which will hopefully put her into position to claim a title of her own one day soon.

“I believe I have the best jiu-jitsu in the women’s division,” Dern said bluntly. “From watching [Rodriguez’s] other fights, just her giving her back a lot, just trying to get up like any way, I saw a lot of opportunities for submissions.

“Maybe [she will] defend the armbar or the choke, but once they defend the choke, I’m going to the triangle [choke], and if they defend the triangle then I’m already going for a foot lock. It’s like chess. ... You keep setting up, they defend one, defend two, but I have plans C, D, E, F, and G. That’s my world down there.”

Dern believes she’s ready to graduate from contender to champion, but much like how she’s approaching fights lately, nothing comes without foresight about what happens next.

As a matter of fact, if Dern is successful in defeating Rodriguez at UFC Vegas 38, expect to see her give a look over to her head coach before she actually opens her mouth for the post-fight interview.

“I’ll look at Coach Parillo and say, ‘I should make the callout or no?’, and see if he gives me the OK or not,” Dern said. “If he thinks we need to do one more fight just to maybe clear up any homework that he thinks we can do for my striking, for everything to be as best prepared as possible for the belt, to be the champ.

“I think one more fight could happen, too, after this fight, but if not, if everything goes good and we’re ready, I’ll definitely do a callout or something like that for the belt. I definitely trust his instincts. I trust his decisions. He always tells me he’s painting a picture in his mind and I trust his artwork. I’m going to be his artwork and hopefully his future champ. I think we’ll be good. If he says we’re ready, we’re ready.”

The differences in her fights have been obvious but Dern has also appreciated the acknowledgement she’s been receiving from her peers and from supporters around the world. In a way, she was actually happy to ditch all the fans who suddenly didn’t want to follow her any longer after she got pregnant, because Dern recognized it was essentially like dumping a whole lot of dead weight.

Dern doesn’t spent much time perusing Instagram or her other social media accounts these days, but in those rare moments when she posts a photo or puts up a training video, she can’t help but notice a difference in the comments she’s receiving.

“I lost 50,000 followers at the time when I had all those followers and things like that, just kind of the comments were kind of people [saying] like ‘overrated’ and all these things,” Dern said. “Today, I’m not even that much on my social media … but the little stuff I post, people are just like, ‘Future champ. I see you. You’re working hard. The mindset.’

“I’m like, wow, people notice just from one 30-second video. So they can really tell. I can see that the people see me as a future champ now.”

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